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Hearing of the House Judiciary Committee - "Eyes in the Sky: the Domestic Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems"


Location: Washington, DC

Technology in the United States continues to advance at a rapid pace, with profound implications for law enforcement and the privacy of U.S. citizens. From DNA technology to cyber attacks, we here at the Judiciary Committee are fully engaged in examining the effects of new technology on Americans, and on our legal system. Today we are discussing the increased use of unmanned aerial systems -- or UAS -- for domestic use.

As with much technological innovation, UAS bring both new opportunities and new challenges. These unarmed, unmanned platforms can be flown with cameras and other sensors and transmit information instantaneously to ground crews. In an era of record deficits, UAS could make law enforcement more efficient and cost effective. UAS can also enhance safety for law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement already uses manned helicopters and airplanes equipped with sophisticated technology and sensors. We saw an example of this during the manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing last month. After the surviving suspect was located in a boat in someone's back yard, the police surrounded the area. They did not know the condition of the suspect, who was armed and dangerous. So, they flew a manned helicopter, equipped with a thermal imager, over the boat.

The thermal imager was able to reveal the location and the movements of the suspect. Footage from the camera is now on the Internet, and anyone can see how the sensors clearly revealed the inside of the boat, and the suspect within. One advantage of UAS is that they could employ similar technology to achieve the same results more inexpensively and with less risk to law enforcement officers.

UAS could also be used for a multitude of other applications. For example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced last week that they successfully used a small UAS, equipped with a thermal imager, to locate and treat an injured man whose car had flipped over in a remote, wooded area in near-freezing temperatures.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses UAS to police the nation's borders to deter unlawful border crossings by unauthorized aliens, criminals, and terrorists, and to detect and interdict the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband into the country.

Furthermore, DHS, in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies, has been testing UAS capabilities in other situations including detecting radiation, monitoring hostage situations, firefighting, and finding missing persons.

While there are many useful applications for UAS, there are also many reasons to be concerned about the privacy implications of UAS.

Unchecked law enforcement use of UAS could lead to violations of U.S. citizens' Constitutional rights. Overly aggressive bureaucrats behind the controls of UAS could lead to an expansion of the federal government's footprint, harassment and serious violations of privacy.

In fact, to protect against these types of abuses, the Virginia legislature recently passed a 2 year moratorium on the use of UAS by law enforcement, except in certain emergency situations, making Virginia the first state legislature in the country to pass such legislation.

In addition to government use of UAS, there is now a great movement to develop commercial use of UAS, which brings additional opportunities and challenges.

For example, companies are promoting use of UAS for sports photography, to film amateur climbers and surfers as they compete. And that is just one example -- the potential for commercial use of UAS technology is virtually limitless.

However, this commercial development also brings forth new privacy questions. Can a private individual use a UAS to check whether a neighbor is building his fence in the right spot? Should a home owner's association be able to use a UAS to patrol a group of homes? Last month, the animal rights group, PETA, announced plans to acquire a UAS in order "to spy on hunters and catch them in the act as they terrorize animals and break game laws." Clearly, there are a host of privacy implications that we should consider as unmanned air activity becomes more prevalent.

Computer systems, combined with aviation, will make it possible for people, businesses and governments to use aviation on a scale never seen before. Many people believe that our legal system will adapt to this new technology the way it has in the past. Others believe that special measures should be taken in advance of UAS development to ensure that Americans' rights are protected.

The Judiciary Committee's challenge is to make sure our nation's legal structures continue to protect Americans' privacy, while allowing technology to flourish and improve our safety, security, and economic progress.

I thank Subcommittee Chairman Sensenbrenner for holding this hearing and I look forward to hearing the witnesses' testimony on this important subject.

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